The title of this doctoral thesis is ‘Sensemaking and nactment perspectives in companies with organic processing’. As the title indicates, the main focus is to understand how companies make sense of, and acts in relation to, the processing of organic food.
The author asks why there are very few explicit reflections, both in the public debate and
among companies, concerning the processing of organic food, and seeks the answer in empirical work involving five companies engaged in the processing of organic food.
Initially, the thesis discusses the background for the choice of subject by arguing that the lack of value reflections, combined with the very sparse regulation in the organic processing sector, is problematic. This is because the expectations from the public connected to the production and the products as, for example, being healthier, better quality, locally produced or a better choice for the environment, are not necessarily fulfilled. These value-related expectations are different from the expectations connected with conventional food products and are related to the history of organic food production.
In organic production, primarily among the farmers, there have always been strong relations to different explicit values, which also today make organic food represent an
alternative to the conventional. In processing however, very few of these explicit values are represented, if we look at regulations in the area for example. The two major
differences between organic and conventional food production are that the list of additives is more limited in organic, whilst there is also a ban on the use of GMO products. This fact leaves the management of values, in a broader sense, to the single company and thereby
opens up the possibility for a wide range of interpretations. Today, the amount of organic
products on sale in an ordinary supermarket in Denmark illustrates the variety available.
It also reveals an increasing selection of more and more processed and conventional ‘lookalikes’
as organic possibilities, for example freeze-dried soup powder, frozen pizzas or
ready-to-eat noodles with different flavours. In the context of EU regulation, there is
continuous pressure to add to the list of allowed additives from food companies, which
has resulted in an increase in the number of permitted additives. For example, today the
use of additives for colouring cheese is permitted, which was not previously allowed.
This development is problematized in relation to the expectations mentioned above and in
relation to the necessary price premium connected to these products due to the more
expensive costs such as in the primary production. If organic products end up as
conventional ‘look-alikes,’ how can they then represent an alternative and command
This thesis investigates this subject further by gaining knowledge of how the concept of
‘organic’ is comprehended and interpreted within Danish food processing companies.
This has lead to the development of the following interconnected research questions:
What sensemaking perspectives are connected to organic processing companies? How do they enact
the concept of organic in the companies and in the networks around them and what does this mean
in relation to practice? Which issues can be placed in the zones of relevance in the companies?
The theoretical approach has been related to two main traditions; New Institutionalism
and Actor-Network Theory. The overall frame has been to focus on the cultural-cognitive
aspects of organisations and relate this to the network activities involving ‘actants’ of both
human and non-human origin. Finally, the phenomenologist Alfred Schütz’ (Schütz, 1970)
concept ‘Zones of relevance’ is also used to combine the different approaches into a
unifying illustration of the potential for the companies to develop their understanding of
the distinctive character of organic production. Sensemaking (Weick, 1995; Weick et al,
2005) and enactment are key concepts in the analysis, which are applied in order to
determine the identity connected to the specific organic production in each company.
In the empirical study, the main methodological approach adopted to examine identity
and sensemaking in the companies is the qualitative interview. Interviews were conducted
with persons with the main responsibility for organic production in the companies. The
focus has been, on the one hand, to try to understand and analyze the sensemaking
perspectives in relation to organic processing, whilst on the other, to give an overview of
these different sensemaking aspects in relation to the enacting perspectives, which is the
potential for developing and acting in networks, in relation the organic identity. The
concept ‘zones of relevance’ has been introduced, in order to identify the immediate, and
thereby most familiar, issues for the company on which they are acting in the daily
practice, and the more peripheral issues. According to Schutz (1970), there are 4 zones of
relevance. By crystallising the four zones of relevance for each of the five companies, the
purpose is to illustrate the potential for future actions in relation to organic production.
The conclusion of the thesis is partly concentrated on the empirical study, and the findings
there, and partly on a discussion of the methodological approach and the problems
connected to this in a study of this type.
In relation to the empirical part, the main finding is that orientations differ depending on
whether it is a small or a larger company. I conclude that the three smaller companies
enact the concept of organic in greater depth than the larger companies. For one of the
larger companies I find clear and explicit limitations towards engagement in developing
organic processing values.
For the three smaller companies, there is a focus on making products of a distinct
character related to quality, processing, or to the story connected to the product. For the
two larger companies, the focus is more on making ‘ordinary’ or daily products at an
Common to all five companies is a condemnation of the inclusion of more additives in
Another characteristic common to four of the five companies is a quite complex network
around the company and for some of them also around the organic production. This
indicates a potential for development of the zones of relevance in the companies.
Another finding is that in all the five companies there is substantial focus on sales and
marketing. This is seemingly an all-pervading element of the companies and their daily
acting in relation to organic production. This is in line with what has been one of the main
focus points in the history of organic production, since sales were very limited and small
in the early period. The finding is also in line with the main focus of the interest group
organizing (most) organic companies. Here all employees are educated in sales and
marketing. My impression is that this issue therefore receives the highest priority while
other aspects of organic production are not in focus in the same way.
Regarding the methodological reflections, the main conclusions focus on the discussion of
the theoretical and methodological approaches. The multidisciplinary approach has, of
course, some advantages and some limitations. The advantages are connected to a more
complex and varied look at the material while the limitations are concerned with a more
superficial treatment of the approaches used. Also, the issue of whether the use of short
time observation and qualitative interviews with a relatively limited number of persons is
sufficient in an analysis to, for example, identity aspects of companies, is discussed.
Although there are limitations to the methods used in this project, it is still the conviction
of the author that the approach has contributed with substantial material in relation to the
issues raised in the research statement.
The contribution from future research by in opening the discussion about values in
processing organic foods is discussed and finally the use of alternative methodological
approaches, specifically the more long term observation for example a method called
‘Shadowing’ is discussed.